Security Theater in Kabul

by Jim Kelly on 11/10/2009 · 23 comments

Last month I took my first trip to Afghanistan, and arriving at Kabul International Airport it was immediately clear I was a little out of place.

“What company are you with?” asked one of the plainclothes people walking around ensuring everyone filled out immigration registration form.  “None,” I replied.  “I’m a tourist.”  Watching his face, it seemed that it took a moment for this to process.  This wasn’t a completely foreign concept, it appeared, just one that didn’t necessarily occur consistently with every flight arriving from Dubai.

“Okay.  Do you have your photos?” he asked.  He was referring to the two passport-sized photos of yourself you should bring with you for your registration card.  I told him I did not, and that I did not know I had needed them.  This was a slight fib, as they were sitting on my desk in Maryland.  I had simply forgotten them in my rush to make my flight about a day and a half before this moment.  He indicated that this wouldn’t be a problem, and folded the registration form in half, and returned it to me.

And so began a pattern that would persist my entire stay: authority exists only as long as it isn’t inconveniencing everybody.  Once it becomes a pain to implement for those in power, or you become a pain to them in your resistance to their authority, all pretext of following protocol or doing things in the interest of security flies out the window.

Another more important example can be seen when you are flying out of Kabul International Airport.  I’ve flown out of there twice.  Both times we were subjected to multiple pat downs of our person, but only the most cursory baggage checks; especially in the domestic terminal.  The triviality of defeating this security charade is only eclipsed by the ease with which the situation could be improved.

And perhaps you are saying, “so what?”  So security at the airport leaves something to be desired?  The country certainly has larger problems.  Unfortunately the attitudes and habits I’ve discussed above don’t appear to be unique to the airport.  A concrete example of these attitudes and their consequences is in the bombing in front of ISAF headquarters several months ago.  The bombers were able to get so close because guards at the outer perimeter simply saw an “official looking” vehicle and waved it through.  In the end the bombers were stopped by an inner layer of security, but the failure of the outer layer is symptomatic of the problem.

And this isn’t to say that Afghanistan has a completely useless security apparatus.  To be sure, there is ample evidence that intelligence gathering is relatively robust, and the theory of “defense in depth” is in evidence everywhere.  Rare is there only one layer of security to go through.  This is a good thing.

So what’s the cause of this?   To be honest it’s an issue we suffer from here in the States as well: the appearance of security is more important than being thoughtful and thorough about security.  It’s security theater.  The difference between security theater in the States and security theater in Kabul is that training and higher expectations both lead to what is still more effective security forces in the States as well as the fact that the stakes and dangers are in reality just that much higher in Kabul.  In the States this manifests itself in a false sense of security.  In Kabul I can only assume the people in charge of security delude themselves into thinking they are effective.  In reality all they are doing is hopefully making people feel safer.  And don’t get me wrong, we know that perception is often more important than reality.  But in the case of security, reality is all that’s left when an attack occurs.

Equally important to the question of the cause, what’s the solution?  Of course you’ll never achieve 100% security anywhere, lease of which in a target rich environment like Kabul.  But the goal here isn’t to be 100% effective, it’s to deter attackers by lowering their chance of success.  This is quite possible, and it starts with simply holding the men on the ground accountable and having leadership which at these posts which takes security seriously.  Again, this isn’t a silver bullet, but the problems really are so fundamental that the answers really are this trivial.  We can worry about the more complicated plots later.


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{ 23 comments }

AS November 10, 2009 at 8:22 pm

So let me get this straight, your first trip to Afghanistan was a month ago, you were a tourist (which ranks rather high on the stupid and arrogant scale), and you’re using your anecdoctal experience with airport security to editorialize upon the entire state of the “security apparatus” in Afghanistan?

Tell me this is a late April fools joke.

Ps. Me thinks the answers are not that “trivial” and I have a feeling those who have had professional experience with security in Afghanistan would agree.

Jim Kelly November 10, 2009 at 8:53 pm

which ranks rather high on the stupid and arrogant scale

How is going to Kabul stupid and arrogant?

Me thinks the answers are not that “trivial” and I have a feeling those who have had professional experience with security in Afghanistan would agree.

No, I think any security professional would agree with me. The security is a joke, and basically non-existent as it stands now. Getting it from this useless level to something that at least acts as a deterrent really is laughably simple.

Have you ever been to Kabul?

lone wolf November 10, 2009 at 9:13 pm

i hope it was a fun time fer ya.
kabul is interesting place to visit.
what with a few car bombs and assorted nonsense goin on over there.
im surprised u got a visa there.
hmm makes my 1st trip to tashkent hard to figger since it was right after the car bombings and other stuff.
at least u got samakand and bukhara and goo goosha to see.
:-/

Matt November 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm

Interesting post. Did you just stay in Kabul, or did you go around the country at all?

Jim Kelly November 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm

I also went to Herat and took a day trip to Panjshir.

Toaf November 11, 2009 at 4:15 am

An interesting post. And using your own experience as a basis for consideration of broader issues makes for an engaging blog post and doesn’t deserve ridicule. I’ll look forward to your next post.

Joe Harlan November 11, 2009 at 4:51 am

I think security in Kabul comes through mechanisms other than the ANP or private security. First, there is immense social and commercial pressure to keep Kabul relatively peaceful; too many people make their livelihoods off the international presence and the population itself (roughly 15% of the entire country). The Taliban have little to no support inside the city, and are very unwelcome. Which leads me to the second part, which is information. The NDS is probably the most effective part of the government’s security apparatus. After the ISAF bombing back in mid-August, rumor has it that they were very embarrassed and (Vegas-style) made a lot of holes in the desert. A great deal of effort is put into keeping tabs on what will happen so it can be dealt with before it explodes in someone’s face (pun intended).

Jim Kelly November 11, 2009 at 9:51 am

Thanks for commenting on this, this is actually a missing perspective in my piece, a perspective that’s more difficult to get.

It also leads to a point that probably should be clarified: I actually find Kabul to be a relatively safe place, and never felt unsafe there.

The clarification I’d look for in your comments is that you said, “security in Kabul comes through mechanisms other than the ANP or private security.” I imagine you mean the security we have is mostly thanks to other mechanisms, rather than to say that the solutions in Kabul are currently adequate.

I think improvements to ANP and other security services on the ground coupled with the relative success of intelligence services would yield what is probably the best security we could reasonably ask for. Of course it sill won’t be perfect, but it’ll be a pretty effective deterrent.

Nathan November 11, 2009 at 7:56 am

Both of the above explanations for the relative safety of Kabul (social/commercial pressures and the NDS) are at least partly true. But it is also true that security in Kabul is largely a display of poorly-organized theatre. I regularly spend twenty minutes at one of the many ANP checkpoints while an illiterate cop argues with me about my weapon authorization (which is completely offical and in order) and tries to get a bribe. However, these same cops didn’t stop three bad guys (in ANP uniforms, by the way) from shooting up a UN guesthouse a couple of weeks ago. Security improves when you have professional, accountable security forces, and the ANP is a long way from that.

Paulinkabul November 11, 2009 at 9:50 am

Hmmm…..

These are alien registration cards, and are optional at the airport, you can also get one at the Ministry of Internal Affairs after arrival, the point being you should have one.

Let me take you through leaving Kabul

1. A check 1 km from the airport, vehicle checked and a pat down.
2. A second check, pat down, driver and vehicle registered, cases scanned or searched when the scanner is not working 🙁
3. In the car park 0.5km from airport, show ticket, pat down and bus or walk to airport buildings.
4. Show ticket at entrance to airport concourse.
5. Entrance to airport buildings, cases scanned, all metal out of pockets, body scan or search.
6. Check in, and leave alien registration card with immigration official. You can be fined here if you don’t have one.
7. Passport control
8. hand baggage scan, body scan includes shoes, belt etc, laptop out of bag.

in addition to all this, checked in bags are scanned again, and sniffer dogs check luggage and aircraft.

This is professional security to my mind.

Jim Kelly November 11, 2009 at 10:16 am

Let me take you through my experience the multiple times I went through the airport in Kabul:

1. A check 1km from the airport. They ask you to exit the vehicle and they pat you down. No effort is made to check the contents of the car, although once a dog sniffed the trunk.

2. A second pat down, again no check of the car.

3. You get out of the car and go through a trailer that contains a scanning machine. As you said, it’s not always working, and the other times I don’t even recall a person being in there. There is also noone checking the car still, so in reality this check is entirely useless.

4. Drive to the carpark, get out, walk through the little building of shops. On other side, hit checkpoint where they ask you to show your “ticket” which is anything with writing on it. When I left Kabul I had nothing and still got through this. (Nor should you have to have a ticket, but they shouldn’t ask if it doesn’t matter. Concentrating on things that provide zero security benefit distract you from things that do).

5. Walk about 500 yards, go through another checkpoint. Again, show anything with writing on it or just argue with them, either way the checkpoint is a farce.

6. The rest is dependent on whether you go to the international or domestic terminal.

a. International – Walk through yet another useless checkpoint where they ask to see your “ticket” or you argue with them until they let you by. Then you enter the terminal, and you actually are required to, for the very first time, submit any and all bags to a scan and really go through a legit metal detector in a situation where you aren’t just about to go back to a “dirty” (unchecked) location like an unchecked car.

Walk to the ticket counter, get your ticket. Go through passport control. Not only was I not even asked about a registration card, I actually got stamped to leave and then had to come back out to the ticket counter to deal with an issue. This meant I had to go back through passport control, technically without a valid visa (I had already been stamped to exit, but when I came back through the wrong way, they just waved me through). The guy at passport control told me I couldn’t leave, and after five minutes of arguing with me, he just lost interest and waved me through.

b. Domestic – Walk up to a table where a disinterested guy opens your bag and closes it. That’s right. Unzip, rezip. Enter the domestic terminal. Walk up to ticket counter, hand in your checked baggage. I actually don’t remember any other check before boarding the airplane itself, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there is.

In the situations I described above the only security with a modicum of effectiveness is in the terminals themselves (and I’m not so sure you could say that for the domestic terminal, but for the sake of argument we’ll say that both the international and domestic terminal both have adequate security inside).

Where was most of the effort expelled on the part of the police in this story? In between the first checkpoint and the terminal itself. How much security did that provide? Next to none. The first check with the occasional dog sniff serves a purpose (although patting down people there is a waste). Beyond that there isn’t a bit of security that makes people even a little bit safer until you get inside the terminal.

That’s hardly professional security.

AS November 11, 2009 at 11:04 am

I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan 5 months ago, but didn’t because it’s a WAR ZONE and unless I had a professional or academic reason to go, I don’t have business there. It seems rather unnatural to me that one would go on vacation to play spectator to one of the greater ongoing tragedies in the world today (but your stories probably go over great at cocktail parties!).

I’m not going to comment on the Afghan security apparatus, but I will say that from the inside, things tend to be more complicated than the casual outsider can perceive. I will say that Afghans working in the ANA, ANP, NDS etc are particularly vulnerable to the culture of corruption and lawlessness that festers in those institutions. I mean how much money and manpower have we devoted over the previous ~7 years to build the ANP and how often do we hear reports about local ANP and some of the really sick and grotesque activities they’re involved in? This isn’t just a matter of hiring new security forces to replace ineffective ones (we’ve certainly tried that already), but rather reversing the longstanding culture of entitlement that has manifested itself for years at all levels of the security apparatus.

Jim Kelly November 11, 2009 at 7:42 pm

it’s a WAR ZONE and unless I had a professional or academic reason to go, I don’t have business there.

Calling Kabul a war zone is an insult to war zones. Yes, it’s more dangerous than your average place, but so is Baltimore. It certainly isn’t Helmand, and hell, it isn’t even as dangerous as much of Pakistan these days.

I think you really lack perspective on how dangerous a place it actually is.

And if it makes you feel any better, my interests were academic, I wasn’t there simply to, “play spectator.” I’m not affiliated with an academic institution at the moment, however.

from the inside, things tend to be more complicated than the casual outsider can perceive

This might be a legitimate concern if we were talking about complex issues here. The examples I give in the entry and elsewhere in the comments are pretty cut and dry, however.

IntelTrooper probably said it best in a comment below, “The cursory, half-assed inspections of personnel/vehicles/baggage is symptomatic of failures in mentorship of Afghan security forces across the board.”

I don’t think you have to replace everyone. I got the impression the security personel were largely reacting to what the expectations are of them. Since there is no effective lower and middle management of them, no mentors to relate it to IntelTrooper’s comment, you get what you’ve asked for. And that’s nothing.

Paulinkabul November 11, 2009 at 11:37 am

OK so the Alien registration card is optional at the airport?

What about all the security inside the international terminal?

The local terminal you are right, it still needs work, but they have not had any problems in the 5 years I have been here

Jim Kelly November 11, 2009 at 7:46 pm

OK so the Alien registration card is optional at the airport?

I don’t think it’s so much optional as just a half-assed measure that people probably implement when they feel like it. As such, it’s just a waste of time and an opportunity to encourage corruption (pay me this bribe because you don’t have your card or you can’t leave).

What about all the security inside the international terminal?

Admittedly the security inside the international terminal isn’t so bad. As I said in my outline of the steps to get in the airport as I saw them, you immediately are supposed to go through a screening when you walk in. And there’s no opportunity to leave some items unscreened (as when you are patted down and then return a car that wasn’t checked, making the pat down useless).

But the majority of the security outside the international terminal is simply for show. Besides the dogs, the checks do nothing.

The local terminal you are right, it still needs work, but they have not had any problems in the 5 years I have been here

Optimally you don’t react after an event, but before.

IntelTrooper November 11, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I haven’t had any experience in Kabul, but I know that in other cities, one can simply negotiate through the security obstacles by looking American or official enough. The cursory, half-assed inspections of personnel/vehicles/baggage is symptomatic of failures in mentorship of Afghan security forces across the board.

1110 November 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Your understanding of the bombing at ISAF HQ is inaccurate, and that hurts your argument since you use it as a “concrete example”.

Security isn’t theater. It depends on the threat, and while Kabul is a war zone, you can still walk the streets at day and night. You’d find the usual charades that you describe are much different if the threat assessments warranted.

Jim Kelly November 11, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Your understanding of the bombing at ISAF HQ is inaccurate, and that hurts your argument since you use it as a “concrete example”.

How is it inaccurate? I’ve seen pictures myself, in addition to being told how it went down. Everything points to the fact that a vehicle was waved through several checkpoints. It could not have magically appeared inside several outer layers of security, so one is only led to believe that the stories that they were waved through were accurate.

Security isn’t theater. It depends on the threat, and while Kabul is a war zone, you can still walk the streets at day and night. You’d find the usual charades that you describe are much different if the threat assessments warranted.

I find it humorous that in one sentence you say that security is not theater and then in another you call what a saw a charade. So you seem to be arguing not that security isn’t theater, but that it’s okay that it’s theater, because it responds accordingly when the threats warrant it.

But this of course makes the ridiculous-on-its-face assumption that you will know about impending attacks. You will not. And the numerous examples of failures of on-the-ground security forces in Kabul illustrate this point very plainly.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 11, 2009 at 11:03 pm

It is always nice to read travellers stories.

Julia Mahlejd November 12, 2009 at 1:47 am

Jim, your point about Kabul airport security is moot until you try to sneak in explosives yourself. As a white boy you really are not high on the ANP racial profiling list – and for good reason. And, more importantly, i have never known the ANP, border police, or customs guys there to take bribes (tipping the annoying trolley/luggage guys doesn’t count). If anyone knows any different, please do correct me. To a western eye there are certianly many absurdities at that airport (for example, the female security guards regularly try on my cosmetic in the process of rifling – thoroughly – through my luggage) but i would argue the bigger threat to your personal security is simply flying Ariana.

Now, having said that, i did once see a Pahston man with a henna-ed beard and shalwar kameeze putting his kalashnikov through the hand luggage scanner…

Jim Kelly November 12, 2009 at 2:37 pm

your point about Kabul airport security is moot until you try to sneak in explosives yourself.

I’m assuming this is a joke. 🙂 I was told by a friend that some initial wording for this article was essentially throwing down the gauntlet to young would-be terrorists, but you’ve turned that around. 🙂

As a white boy you really are not high on the ANP racial profiling list – and for good reason.

I strongly disagree with this assessment, and I think history clearly backs up my view. Not only is racial profiling not helpful, it is actually harmful. Racially profiling inherently means you under-screen a group (or at least what you perceive to be a group) of people because you don’t think they are a threat. This of course just means that any attacker who is not a complete moron recognizes that all they must do is appear like the under-screened group and they have defeated your security, making it essentially useless.

And this isn’t theory, it’s occurred many times in history. One striking example was the French occupation of Algeria, where the Algerians dressed like westerners and breezed right through security checkpoints to deliver their bombs. And I think Massoud’s supporters will tell you the perils of assuming you can pick out who is a westerner and who isn’t.

i have never known the ANP, border police, or customs guys there to take bribes (tipping the annoying trolley/luggage guys doesn’t count). If anyone knows any different, please do correct me.

No, actually, you are absolutely correct on this. I never had any indication that any of the security forces around the airport ever wanted a bribe for anything, even in the instances where I was clearly attempting to do something they felt I shouldn’t be doing.

but i would argue the bigger threat to your personal security is simply flying Ariana.

Perhaps, but fixing Ariana isn’t as trivial as improving the security at the airport. Or simply removing it and not wasting the resources if we all agree it isn’t necessary.

Now, having said that, i did once see a Pahston man with a henna-ed beard and shalwar kameeze putting his kalashnikov through the hand luggage scanner…

Now that is a great airport story. 🙂

Julia Mahlejd November 15, 2009 at 3:32 am

Of course i’m not actually suggesting that you (or anyone else!) attempt to bring any contraband through. And i do agree with you about profiling providing an obvious weakness – i fear the day when insurgents start using women to get through security checkpoints.

Eli November 18, 2009 at 10:26 pm

I’m confused why AS being too chicken to go to Kabul makes a person who does go stupid and arrogant. I’m also unsure why somebody with enough apparent interest in Afghanistan to read comments in a blog post about Afghanistan would not know that there are spectacular and relatively safe places to visit … and that people are visiting as tourists.

My Kabul airport story: an interpreter and I managed to talk our way past six lines of security trying to get in without any good reason. (Well, with a good reason, but not one involving flying on an airplane.) True I’m a westerner and do not meet the security threat profile, but if the security was real the guards should have at a minimum called their superiors on the fancy radios we’ve provided them. I’ve been very impressed with some of the Afghan security folk I’ve met, but overall too much of the domestic security in Afghanistan is window dressing.

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